The Black Ceiling: It’s Not A Minor(ity) Problem

broken-glass ceiling

By Aimee Hansen

Even though 2017 was a record year for women in the C-Suite amidst Fortune 500 companies  (32 women in CEO jobs, vs. 21 in 2016) , no African American women have sat at the helm since Ursula Burns stepping down at Xerox in late 2016.

Soon there will be only three black CEOs at all in the Fortune 500, against a peak of seven in 2007, and overall upward trending back in the 2000s.

Further, Anne-Marie Campbell, EVP of U.S. Stores for Home Depot, was the only African American to rank in “Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.” Though Rosalind Brewer did reappear in the C-Suite as the first women and African American to be appointed COO of Starbucks.

The Black Ceiling

In a Fortune article calling out the “black ceiling,” Ellen McGirt writes about the absence of African American women: “Burns’ appointment to the top job in 2009 had been hailed as a milestone. Suddenly it looked more like an anomaly.”

Black women in business continue to feel both excluded from male dominated and white dominated informal networks as well as demoralized by being unrecognized and underestimated.

McGirt writes, “They report environments that they feel continually overlook their credentials, diminish their accomplishments, and pile on cultural slights—about their hair, appearance, even their parenting skills. And they often have fraught relationships with white women, who tend to take the lead on issues of women and diversity.”

Greatest Obstacles, Least Support

According to a Women In the Workplace 2017 study by McKinsey & Company, drawing on data from 222 companies employing more than 12 million people and a survey of over 70,000 employees, women of color “face the greatest obstacles and receive the least support.”

Black women consistently perceived less managerial support, less opportunities and less objectivity.

Only 31% of African American women felt managers advocate for their opportunity (vs 41% of white women), only 23% felt managers helped them to navigate organizational politics (vs 36%) and only 28% felt managers defend them or their work (vs 40%).

Only 48% of African American woman felt they had equal opportunity for growth (vs 59% of white women), only 29% felt the best opportunities go to the most deserving (vs 40%) and only 34% felt promotions were based on fair and objective criteria (vs 41%).

The report also found that “inequality starts at the very first promotion” in general for women but is more dramatic for women of color. Among women, African Americans had the lowest promotion rate (4.9% vs. 7.4% for white women) and the highest attrition rate (18.2% vs. 15.4%).

With slower advancement, African American women are more likely to move on in the corporate world or want to go on their own, since they hold higher ambitions to be a top level executive than white women but encounter more obstacles.

Professor Ella Bell Smith from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, notes, “To be able to advance, we know that there are several things — you have to have good mentorship and sponsorship, which means that you have to have some type of relationship, constructive, positive relationship with the managers and executives in your company. You have to perform three times as hard….The formula I like to use is performance plus relationship equal advancement.”

Lack of Inclusion

Without access to networks, African American women feel excluded from the relationships that create opportunities for recognition and advancement. African American women were also far more likely to report they never have senior contact.

Speaking at the Most Powerful Women summit, Anne-Marie Campbell pointed out, “Inclusion is not just a professional thing, it’s a me thing.” She argued it’s up to leaders to explore and broaden their social circles to befriend people of different races and backgrounds, and to open more diverse conversations in the workplace.

Thasunda Duckett, CEO of consumer banking at JP Morgan Chase, also said, “Without emphasizing the importance of an inclusive culture, you’re missing out on talented individuals who don’t feel that they can bring their entire selves to the table.”

Distorted Perception

Indeed, the Walden University report states, “In order to advance, African American women have tried to display work-appropriate behaviors so as to avoid stereotypical images that label them as angry, combative, and aggressive.”

Stating that African American women rarely receive truly constructive feedback or receive inappropriate feedback, Professor Smith observes, “Black women, if they come in too aggressive, assertive — I like the word assertive — they’re told that they’re angry. If they come in too tough, they’re told that they need to soften. So, there’s no right way that they can be. The flip side of that is if you come in trying to be more nurturing and more caring, then you hear, ‘Well, you’re not tough enough.’ So, it’s a very slippery slope…. because after a while, you start believing what you’re hearing, and then you don’t know how to behave. Then you wind up sabotaging yourself, because you really are not bringing your full voice to the table. You can’t lead, you can’t make a difference, you can’t contribute if you’re only bringing half of yourself to work.”

Peripheral Roles

According to the Fortune article, Ursula Burns isn’t surprised that she has no immediate followers in her footsteps, one factor being that black women who do make senior positions are too often concentrated in support positions, removed from product and money, rather than operational roles.

“HR isn’t going to get you there,” Burns told Fortune. “Communications and the arts aren’t going to get you there.”

“You have to really contribute to the bottom line of the business, which does not include HR, which does not include social responsibility. You have to really show that you can run a business. It’s very hard to do to get those positions, particularly if you’re an African-American woman,” echoes Professor Smith, “It’s hard if you’re a white woman. It is triple-time harder for African-American women and other women of color, too. This is not just a phenomena that hits African-American women. It hits us the hardest, though.”

Not a “Priority”

It’s not only that black women are excluded from networks but making sure the talents and performance of black women is cultivated, recognized and rewarded is often not a corporate priority, even amidst the diversity agenda.

At the MPW summit, Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, said: “Another thing that bothers me is that we’re ‘working on’ this, but we aren’t ‘working on’ anything else that matters in our companies. You either do or you do not. You do not ‘work on’ better earnings.”

In Fortune, Burns attributes much of her career success to the support that she received from Xerox, but most companies don’t want to invest and focus for a group that comprises less than 7% of the U.S. population. “For one,” said Burns, “they don’t like to leave the other women out.”

Not a Minor(ity) Issue

The McKinsey reports notes, “When companies take a one-size-fits-all approach to advancing women, women of color end up underserved and left behind.”

This recently appeared in my Facebook feed from a women named Stacy Jordan Shelton: “I loathe the word ‘minority’. Ain’t nothing ‘minor’ about any of us.”

Diversity efforts that are monolithic and treat women of color as a side issue simply fail from the outset. To recast the problem, resulting in benefiting some women while overlooking others, is to proliferate inequality with different players. If diversity isn’t intersectional, it’s far worse than ineffectual. It’s ironic.

That’s only one reason why the black ceiling is neither a “minority” or a “minor” problem. But it’s a real one.